UFC 206 Showcased the Future
A wild four-week ride of changes molded UFC 206 into the product that aired Saturday night. Initially, the card was derided as weak, with a light heavyweight championship rematch between Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson on top, a battle of featherweight contenders Anthony Pettis and Max Holloway in the semi-main event fight, and not much else. Then the card added Donald Cerrone vs. Matt Brown and Tim Kennedy vs. Rashad Evans – both born out of dropouts from the November 12 UFC 205 card – and suddenly it was one of the stronger cards of the year. But nothing good lasts. First Evans, aiming to save his career by dropping to middleweight, was cut from the card. Cormier fell out of the title fight and Johnson followed him off the card. UFC scrambled for a new main event, and settled for taking the featherweight title off Conor McGregor, elevating interim champion Jose Aldo to full champion status, and declaring Pettis vs. Holloway for the interim (re: fake) championship.
The card went on with a few key matchups that promised excitement, but didn’t have anything that felt like a real main event. As a result, it likely received the fewest pay-per-view purchases of any UFC event this year, digging somewhere below (probably well below) the 200,000 buys mark. However, while the event failed to deliver immediate major returns for the company, it gave those that did see it a glimpse into fighters that will be key players going forward.
The most obvious of those is Max Holloway, the new interim featherweight champion. Holloway’s victory came as no surprise – he’d won nine straight bouts entering Saturday and was a slight betting favorite. However, Saturday marked Holloway’s first big fight in the spotlight. It was only his second UFC main event – the first being a Fox Sports 1 headliner last year that did below average numbers and ended abruptly due to injury. His ascent, although it can’t be considered slow at his age, went under-promoted (for obvious reasons, vastly more promotional resources were allocated to another rising featherweight during the same period: Conor McGregor) and thus unnoticed by a large chunk of fans.
With Conor McGregor out of the featherweight picture for now, Holloway’s immediate future is finally clear. If all goes as planned, he’ll challenge Jose Aldo next. Aldo is a champion whose accomplishments some people will attempt to marginalize as having been done in an underdeveloped division, but challengers Kenny Florian, Chad Mendes, Frankie Edgar, and Conor McGregor were undoubtedly world class. Max Holloway is in that same class, and his matchup with Aldo is one of the best in the division’s history. If he can beat Aldo – easily the most accomplished featherweight of all-time – there’s no telling what Holloway can do.
Underneath Holloway were a pair of barnburners. Donald Cerrone emerged from the smoke of a gunfight with Matt Brown in the co-main event, ending his opponent with a stunning head kick. It would be a misnomer to label Cerrone, 33, as a star of the future since he’s currently about as big a star as you can be without being a consistent main event player. However, his 2016 run at welterweight, spurned by a failed bid at the lightweight title a year ago, has opened up new possibilities, and his stoppage of Matt Brown made some major fights more realistic.
The most obvious matchup is one that was initially slated to occur a month ago against former welterweight champion and slugger Robbie Lawler. It’s not pay-per-view main event caliber, but it’s an excellent headliner on Fox or Fox Sports 1, or co-headliner on pay-per-view.
Cerrone has expressed interest in bouts with Damian Maia and Jorge Masvidal, but neither are the fights that will take him to the next level as a star, although a win over Maia push him to #1 contender status. Although the welterweight title picture is crowded with champion Tyron Woodley, challengers Stephen Thompson and Demian Maia, and Georges St-Pierre’s name constantly echoing in the background, it should only take one big win for Cerrone to get to a title shot. It would be best for Cerrone if that win was against the biggest name opponent possible in the biggest fight possible. There are only two realistic fights that fit that criteria. One is Lawler, and the second is the returning Nick Diaz. Diaz is such a star and excellent promoter that a match with Cerrone could headline a pay-per-view.
The other slugfest on Saturday was perhaps the fight of the year, with Cub Swanson edging “The Korean Superboy” Doo Ho Choi by decision. Many pegged the fight as a potential coming out party for Superboy, who won each of his first three UFC fights by first-round (T)KO. In a way, even with the loss, it still was. Choi showed skill and tremendous toughness, but wasn’t quite ready to overcome the very talented Swanson. Even so, Choi came out of the fight a bigger star than he came in. It was like a higher level version of Chan Sung Jung vs. Leonard Garcia, in which “The Korean Zombie” became a star despite losing a contested decision. While Superboy develops as a fighter, expect him to be visible in featured fights and perhaps some television main events.
Kelvin Gastelum, 25, has had a rough couple of years. Almost two years ago, he came in 10 pounds heavy for a welterweight bout with future champion Tyron Woodley and was hospitalized due to the bad weight cut. He still went forward with the fight and suffered his first career loss. UFC forced him back up to middleweight, where he won and decided to try welterweight again. He went 1-1 back in his favored weight class, including a win over former champion Jonny Hendricks. Then, before one of the biggest fights of his career at UFC 205 against Donald Cerrone, he was off weight so badly that he didn’t even weigh in. The fight was called off and he moved back to middleweight for a short notice fight at UFC 206.
Gastelum looked like the fighter everything thinks he could be against Tim Kennedy on Saturday. His stout 5’ 9” frame is not suited for middleweight, but he’s shown that he’s not reliable enough to book at welterweight and it simply may not be safe for him to compete at that weight unless he finds a healthier walk around weight. If he can’t, in the future we’ll be more likely to hear about what Gastelum could have been as a fighter rather than what he became.